Jackie Gulland

Image (c) The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Image (c) The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Object: Ministry of National Insurance (1948) Family Guide to the National Insurance Scheme. HMSO, London. 32 page booklet, 135mmx 110mm, illustrated
Location: Science Museum, London  and University of Warwick

This little booklet first came to my attention when I was looking for something else. I found it in a box of documents about the 1911 National Insurance scheme in the National Library of Scotland. It was in the wrong place. Thirty-seven years of history, two world wars and the creation of the ‘Beveridgean’ welfare state had passed between the other leaflets in this box and the Family Guide. What struck me as interesting about it though were the illustrations. The booklet was illustrated with owls: owls claiming benefits, chasing their orders books, and sheltering under a giant umbrella, explaining in plain language, the new National Insurance Scheme.


owls under umbrella
Image (c) Jackie Gulland

This booklet is important because it represents the optimism of the UK post-war welfare state. The Ministry of Information printed 14 million copies of the leaflet, including copies in Welsh. Copies were distributed to every household in the country to coincide with the introduction of the new National Insurance scheme in July 1948.

A legal object?

The booklet tells people about their legal rights under the scheme: who was required to pay national insurance contributions, how to claim benefits, the importance of time limits, and rights of appeal. It contains a foreword by the Rt Hon James Griffiths MP, Minister of National Insurance, which says:

‘the 5th July 1948 will be a great day in the development of our British Social Services… The system will provide for everybody without exception: men, women and children, young and old, rich and poor, married and single, employer and employed, those working on their own account, and those not working at all…’

The booklet is important as an example of mid-twentieth century public legal information but also as a representation of the post-war National Insurance scheme in 1948 as new and exciting. In contrast to current perceptions of social security benefits with their discourses of ‘scrounging’ and dependency, social security was considered to be socially beneficial, something for everyone and ‘an act of faith’.

Benefits and limitations of the object

The benefit of this object is to draw our attention to a particular view of rights within the UK welfare state at a particular stage of its development. It provides a bridge between the early pre-war welfare system, with its connotations of conditionality, deservingness and links to the Poor Laws to a vision of a future welfare state where everyone was covered (literally, depicted with an umbrella) and where there was a legal contract between the state and the people to protect everyone from life’s difficulties.

A limitation of this is that it is propaganda like any other and disguises the ongoing debates about dependency and malingering which lay under the scheme. The new scheme may have been for everyone but only on condition of contributing, literally, through the National Insurance scheme and, in a wider sense, by signing up to the expectation of the male worker, the family wage and the dependent housewife.

Postscript: did anyone read it?

In my search for more information about the booklet, I found a copy of the findings of a survey on how well the booklet was received by the general public. This survey consisted of 1001 interviews and asked questions about whether or not people had seen the booklet, whether they had read it and what they had gleaned from the information in it. The survey report (Willcock 1948) concluded that the booklet had been largely ineffective: many people did not remember receiving it, those that had read it were confused about the content, and that it had been ‘ignored by those who could most benefit from it’. The report’s author believed that many people did not read the guide because they thought it would be difficult and boring. Those that had bothered to read it had generally misunderstood what it had to say. The author of the report blamed the cover for looking official and difficult.

The discovery of this survey puts the booklet in yet another light. The booklet is a piece of government propaganda, reflecting optimism in the new welfare state, but it is also an example of public legal information. The survey portrays the booklet as an example of a failed project, something which was perceived as bureaucratic and boring. The object continues to raise questions for me about public understanding of welfare, mythologies of the past and the nature of rights.


Willcock, H D, (1948) The Family Guide to the National Insurance Scheme: an inquiry made by the social survey for the Ministry of National Insurance July 1948, Filed in National Archives RG23/143A
For more information about my research on the twentieth century construction of social security benefits for ‘incapacity for work’, see http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/constructingincapacity/